News of Our Group, and Relevant News for Our Members

Friday 30 December 2016

Please feed us, but carefully

Careless feeding can harm birds while good practice can help birds and your pocket.

How safe is your garden?

What to Avoid

Fat Ball in a yellow plastic mesh bag

Mesh bags

The RSPB says “The netting that surrounds fat balls, peanuts and seed sold for bird food is one of the most dangerous things that can be put out in our gardens.” Never put out any food in mesh bags. They may trap a bird's foot and cause broken or torn off feet and legs. Woodpeckers can become trapped by their barbed tongues. After many years of complaining to shops and manufacturers they are still sold widely - profits count for more than birds.


The 'wrong' kinds of fat and oil

Every year RSPB issues a No Turkey Fat press release. You should never feed fats and juices from cooking beef, chicken, turkey, etc.. This is because the juices can soil feathers, may be salty and can create a breeding ground for bacteria.

Birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard. This makes polyunsaturated margarines and vegetable oils unsuitable for birds.

Whatever fats or oils you use, they must be mixed with flour, oats or other cereals so that the mixture is dry to the touch and cannot smear a bird's feathers. Don't put fat-based food out in warm weather as it will go rancid. Also avoid milk.

'Reindeer' food

At Christmas, do not sprinkle 'reindeer food' with glitter, sequins or similar ingredients in the garden. Don't believe the labels - small garden birds and mammals can ingest the plastic and foil glitter with the grain, causing damage to their digestion. 'Edible glitter' may be safe for humans, but is a serious threat to birds and small mammals.

More harmful foods . . .

Salt is very bad for birds so don't leave out any salted food for them. Peanuts are fine but not roasted, coated, spiced or salted. Nothing stale, mouldy or rancid. Chocolate and Avocado are lethal.

Commercial seed mixtures that have rice, split peas, beans or lentils are only suitable for large birds (they are too dry for small birds). Bird food containing green or pink lumps should be avoided as these are dog biscuit, which should only be eaten when soaked.

Cooked porridge oats are too glutinous. Uncooked porridge oats are fine.

Bread should only be a small part of a bird's diet. It doesn't have the protein and fat that birds need, so don't put much out. Even worse for young birds so none during the breeding season.

During nesting season we are advised to break peanuts into nibbles to avoid choking baby birds.


"Free spring fatball Feeder" on tub of fatballs

Dangerous feeders

Certain designs of feeders can trap birds. Spiral and spring fat ball feeders are the worst offenders. Spring ones close up on the bird as the fat ball is consumed. The gap on spiral feeders get narrower if the bird moves round the wrong way.


Trapped Starling being cut from a feeder

Tubular and cylindrical feeders must have the top on, otherwise birds can get in head first but can't back-out. Animal rescue services are often called to free birds from feeders, as shown here. The feeder has been cut apart to free the injured Starling.

Seed feeders should be designed to keep the contents dry, to avoid fungal and bacterial growth.

The RSPB has more about feeding methods.

Feeders must not be broken, have sharp edges or pointed wires and should be cleaned regularly.  Do not leave traces of detergent on feeders or bird baths as detergent will ruin a bird's waterproofing.

See this RSPB article for detailed feeder hygiene precautions


Window collisions

Window collisions are deadly.  Many of the birds that seem to recover and fly away soon die. There are ways to reduce window collisions

Making the window more obviously a barrier can be difficult/expensive. You could just let your windows get dirty but this stops you watching the birds. Raptor silhouettes are popular but not effective. Birds don't perceive them as raptors, just as obstacles, so they need to be really close together. They block your view and they soon peel off.  One answer is UV tape. This is transparent to humans but very visible to birds. It needs to be applied in thin vertical stripes, 4" apart. Sold as "American Bird Conservancy Bird Tape".
Making the window look less like outdoors If you have "through" rooms, arrange curtains and room contents so that birds can't see through opposite windows. If you have indoor plants, don't put them against windows as they will attract birds.
Feeder placement Place feeders more than thirty feet away so that feeding birds are not encouraged to come near windows and have plenty of space to fly away if panicked. An alternative is to place feeders and baths within three feet of the nearest window so that birds aren't moving fast when they hit the window and so avoid injury.
Minimise the use of glass outside. Conservatories and greenhouses are particularly bad, with their through views and interior plants. Absolutely no outdoor mirrors.


Keep cats indoors - this protects not only the birds but also the cats. Typical indoor cats live between twelve and eighteen years, while typical roaming cats only last between four and five years.  A bell on cats' collars is not effective. Possibly some effect if multiple, different design, bells are used. Some people report more success with electronic collar alarms that bleep when the cat leaps (e.g. Liberator Audio Visual Cat Collar). Others use brightly coloured ruffs around the collar (e.g. Birdsbesafe). The University of Exeter found that feeding cats a cat food where proteins came only from meat reduced the birds that cats brought home by 44%. Birdsbesafe reduced bird capture by 42%. Full details of the 2021 Exeter study are HERE. The RSPB has this advice about cats and birds.

Your feeders should be close to a dense bush or two so that the birds have somewhere to flee. The ground beneath the bushes should be open so that cats have nowhere to hide in wait.

Sparrowhawk with pigeon victim

Sparrowhawk. Well, we put "Bird Feeders" in the garden and the Sparrowhawk is a bird.  If you disapprove, stop putting food out for a few days and the Sparrowhawk will move on. It also helps to move the feeders as this disrupts the sparrowhawk's habitual flight paths.



Feeders attract nest predators such as Magpies, so should be positioned well away from potential nest sites, or not used during the nesting season. See this study by the University of Reading. So don't buy combined bird table and nest box.

Squirrels.  Often more of a problem for the feeders than for the birds. Squirrels can jump up five feet and jump ten feet between objects. You may try squirrel baffles or "squirrel proof" feeders but will probably be outwitted. Chilli powder on bird food will put off squirrels and is tasteless to the birds, who will continue to eat the food. Alternatively, learn to enjoy squirrels rather than waging a war against them that you can never win! Feeding squirrels in their own part of the garden will keep them away from the bird feeders.

What you should do

Be sure to provide clean water every day. You might have to change the water several times a day in freezing weather. Do not add salt, antifreeze or any other additives, but you can add a ping-pong ball to keep a small area ice free as it blows around.

Spread various types of bird feeder around your garden. Distributing the feeders reduces squabbling and bullying. Also scatter food on the ground but not too much, you don't want excess food going off or attracting rats.

Budget bird seeds are typically best suited for birds like pigeons. Most of us want to attract smaller garden birds. They like premium mixtures with a high percentage of sunflower seeds, nuts and meal worms.

As well as the standard seeds, mealworms and fat balls, you can also feed with -

  • Grated mild hard cheese - no milk, soft or blue cheeses
  • Naturally dried fruit without sweeteners or preservatives, but never desiccated coconut. Currants/sultanas/raisins are bad for some dogs
  • Potato - mashed, boiled, roast or baked, but not salted
  • Boiled rice and pasta, but not salted. Uncooked rice is only good for pigeons.
  • Soft fruit (apples, pears, plums, grapes etc) best washed to remove pesticides and halved. Grapes are bad for some dogs
  • Dog and Cat food (soak or crush dry food). Not if it attracts cats!
  • Eggs (and crushed eggshell in nesting season)
  • Uncooked pastry made without salt
  • Breakfast cereals, not chocolate flavour
  • Nuts.  Note that while Cashews and Hazelnuts are OK for dogs, most other common nuts can cause them problems.
  • Red Kites need all parts of a carcass, so skin, bones, fur, feathers as well as uncooked meat. Feed only small amounts, and infrequently.
  • Mealworms are harmful to hedgehogs although hedgehogs do love eating them.
  • See this RSPB article for more feeding ideas

Fill your garden with plants that provide bird and insect food.  Hawthorn, Rowan, Cotoneaster, Berberis, Pyracantha, Holly, Spindle, Sunflowers, Evening Primrose, Teasel, Shepherd's purse, Honeysuckle and Ivy are all good.  Leave patches of Nettles and Brambles. Providing shelter from winter weather is extremely important. Plant dense hedges such as privet or hawthorn, or let ivy or holly to grow and you’ll be providing a place to roost in and shelter from the elements. On a larger scale, consider native trees. Wait until late winter to clear away dead flower heads and stems, or to prune berry bearing shrubs. Don’t use pesticides or other toxins. That way you won't injure or kill birds and you will leave invertebrates as bird food.

Keep your garden free of rubbish. Bottles, tins and netting can be particularly harmful for wildlife. Mice, voles and shrews follow insects into bottles and drinks cans then get trapped. Leave nothing that a creature could its head get into but perhaps not out again, e.g. the plastic loops from a six-pack and ring-pulls.

Feeding wild waterfowl. The rules are a little different. Obviously bread is still undesirable so give sweetcorn, peas, small pieces of lettuce and other greens. Like garden birds, they take bird seed, rolled oats, cooked rice, halved grapes and mealworms. Duck pellets float so are better for deeper water. Try not to feed in areas where lots of people feed them, e.g. Windsor!